Sigmund Freud in his essay "The Uncanny" (1919), proposes that the most disquieting experiences we face are not those that are entirely unfamiliar but moments when the familiar and the unfamiliar meet. As a material, hair is familiar to us all. As a technique, embroidery is commonplace. But the combination of synthetic hair and embroidered photographs, as explored by Italian artist Maurizio Anzeri, is uncanny. They are both familiar and, at the same time, not as we would expect. When Anzeri arrived in London to study Graphic Design at Camberwell College more than a decade ago the uncanny was not in the forefront of his mind. His chosen discipline was an effort to be both creative and practical in terms of employment possibilities. But, in reality, the world of design proved too restrictive an arena for such an inquisitive and poetic mind.
An early and fortuitous move to sculpture led Anzeri to develop his materially distinct practice and indulge his “obsession to sew everything”. Even before his departure from Camberwell with a BA (Hons) in 1999, Anzeri created a series of stitched dolls entitled New Gods (1998) that established an atmosphere and material quality, which continues to be evident in his work today. Distorted (but not disfigured) shapes act more like talismans than tokens of child’s play: a family of strange but familiar textile creatures not responsible for their own ugliness.
With New Gods and his degree behind him, Anzeri then began to work with celebrated names such as Eley Kishimoto, the late Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen. Lady Ugolino (2000), commissioned by McQueen soon after Anzeri completed his degree, brought catwalk recognition to the artist when his cloak of black synthetic hair paraded down the catwalk with the help of a suitably blond model. Not long after this, a series of portraits created in 2001 look like a cross between wigs and yet to be cut out paper doll dresses. The figure is apparent but it is also increasingly abstracted.
In light of these early works and their focused use of textile materials, Anzeri’s rejection of the clean, flat surfaces of conventional graphic design now seems inevitable. But increasingly Anzeri became aware of the need to return his practice to a place where he could make art for himself. In 2002 he embarked on an MA in Fine Art Sculpture at the Slade. The course marked a time where aesthetic freedom was rife, but his chosen materials unwelcome in the masculine confines of a traditional sculpture department.
Rather than this scrutiny acting as a deterrent, Anzeri found himself even more convinced of his instinctive visual vocabulary. If reason was needed, he found it by coincidence in a photograph of his relatives repairing fishing nets in their native Italy. Textiles, he determined, and his compulsion to connect and create, are simply “in his blood”. More recently, a material shift has appeared in this unique practice. The synthetic hair that made up the mainstay of Anzeri’s work for a number of years has been discarded and attention turned instead to the stitch. In place of the individual, we now see the global. The Centre is Everywhere (2004) is a brightly coloured laminated world map sewn with sweeping arcs of coloured thread. As the title suggests, this is a map of multiple centres, a world charted from countless perspectives. Perhaps aware of the futility of this notion, Plaster Map soon followed, another global image, this time literally built out of the materials of temporary healing. If The Centre is Everywhere constructs a world with no economic, cultural or religious centre, then Plaster Map presents an equally democratic image of damage with no one continent, culture or nation unscathed.
From these explorations of global mapping emerges Places – a powerful series of stitched photographs made in collaboration with the Swiss photographer Stefania Beretta. To date, they exist as some of the most mature and beguiling work Anzeri has created.Beretta, in a gesture of considerable trust, gave Anzeri a series of large colour photographs, some measuring 50 x 70cm and others 90 x 120cm, after completing a six month residency in the UK. With minimal conversation to frame the collaboration, Anzeri began stitching ghostly, amphibious structures directly onto the large colour photographs. When void of stitch, the images depict the edges of landscapes: sea and soil, horizon next to grass, rock pools and cliffs cutting against cold, grey waves. Anzeri introduces both imagined and real structures: constructions he sees as “both positive and ghostly at the same time”. Brighton’s long burnt pier reappears alongside its partially submerged ruins; what look to be new North Sea oil platforms swell from the water; triffid-like creatures crouch along a bleak horizon line.
In each of these works the landscape is unpopulated and the machine stitch uncomplicated. Foreign but familiar structures are tethered by perspective lines that extend outwards, like the guide wires of a tent, to suggest the impermanence of these constructions. Only in the images of Brighton Pier and the cliffs of Dover does the stitch suggest a materiality also present in the image. Numerous white threads echo the chalkiness of the cliffs; black threads build on the partially submerged metal structure of the pier. More recent work has continued this exploration of stitched photographs, this time taking portraits of forgotten B movie actresses and stitching into and over their features. The results are as disconcerting as they are recognisable. At times they flatter, in others they obscure and distort. Throughout, the stitch – like the synthetic hair used before – provides an uncanny addition that evokes the familiar but brings with it a challenging sense of disquiet.
Embroidery magazine (July/Aug. 2008: 34-37)